-->When patients have trouble with panic attacks and come to
psychologist Norman B. Schmidt, PhD, he asks if they drink coffee and whether
the anxiety strikes shortly afterward, say, in the morning on the way to
If their answer is "yes," he has a surprising treatment: More
coffee. But now these patients carefully sip their java while noting their
physical reactions. That way, Schmidt hopes, they'll learn to recognize their
pounding hearts and quickened pulses for what those symptoms really represent:
a caffeine-induced buzz.
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With coffeehouses springing up on every street corner, researchers like
Schmidt are increasingly concerned about caffeine's role in panic and other
anxiety disorders. Indeed, caffeine's power has become so well recognized that
the American Psychiatric Association has added three related disorders to its
list of official diagnoses: caffeine intoxication, caffeine-related anxiety,
and caffeine-related sleep disorders.
"Caffeine is the most widely used mood-altering drug in the world,"
says Roland Griffiths, PhD, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and
neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "People
often see coffee, tea, and soft drinks simply as beverages rather than vehicles
for a psychoactive drug. But caffeine can exacerbate anxiety and panic
It's no surprise that caffeine gets so much attention from scientists these
days. After all, 80% of Americans drink it. In fact, occasional coffee
consumption rose 6% in the last year alone, according to the National Coffee
Association. At the same time, panic and other anxiety disorders have become
the most common mental illnesses in the United States. When caffeine overlaps
with these disorders, the result can be trouble.
"If you tend to be a high-strung, anxious person," says Schmidt,
"using a lot of caffeine can be risky."
Technically, caffeine works by blocking the depressant function of a
chemical called adenosine, says Griffiths. For most of us, the result is a
pleasurable sense of energy and focus. Indeed, a British study published in the
October 1999 issue of Human Psychopharmacology confirmed what most
latte-lovers already know: Caffeine enhances alertness, concentration, and
Drink more coffee than you're accustomed to, however, and that same
stimulant can cause the jitters. And in people predisposed to anxiety
disorders, caffeine can trigger a spiral of sensations -- sweaty palms, a
pounding heart, ringing in the ears -- that leads to a full-blown panic
What makes some of us feel panic while others feel pleasantly alert?
Susceptible people experience caffeine's effects as signs of impending doom.
Once that happens, anxiety can take on a life of its own. While many give up
coffee, others give up whatever they were doing when struck by caffeine's
disturbing side effects. Someone who downs coffee at breakfast and then hops on
the freeway to work, for example, may attribute feelings of panic to rush-hour
traffic rather than to caffeine.